Is everybody wiser than anybody?

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I’m regularly struck by how our prism of vision is both narrow — no two people perceive the same thing in the same way — and at the same time how much inspiration we can radiate in conversation with others.

I came across this saying — “Is everybody wiser than anybody?” — while digging into the archival addresses of Humanist minister John Dietrich in his cleverly titled 1930s talk, “If you are right, why don’t more people agree with you?” His point was that the well-trodden path is the one of least resistance — our brains tend to prefer it — but that doesn’t mean individual revolts of thinking are wrong.

“It is sometimes an effort so painful that [collective man is] not willing to take the trouble to wear out a new channel of thought,” he said.

We all need errant ants that break from the structured path to find new sources of food when the old is being obscured.

Dietrich led an errant conversation — that reached thousands in Minneapolis in the early 1900s via radio, published talks and Sunday addresses in a theater — that science and reason, not a higher power, was our pathway to human salvation. Yet, intriguingly, by the end of his life in 1957, he was writing a manuscript declaring that the tools of science and technology were giving us a narcissistic self-sufficiency that was dangerous.

“It is high time to realize that the man-society relationship is not enough, but in order to save our civilization we need to restore the man-universe relationship. … Our country, and in fact the world, has sunk to a new low ethically and spiritually. Opportunism has displaced ethics, violence and selfishness has overcome altruism, and a crass materialism has supplanted all spiritual values until our civilization stands on the brink of disaster for want of moral integrity and spiritual fibre.”

The science of interaction

In a recent discussion group, we talked about the book “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by theoretical physicist Carl Rovelli and his claim that “reality is interaction.”

As Rovelli articulated more deeply in the science communication journal Metode, “It seems to me that science is going more and more towards linking the world in terms of interactions. … To understand ourselves better, we cannot see ourselves in terms of personal isolation — [as if] I have a ‘me’ and a ‘social me.’ The same is true also for fundamental physics: elementary particles are better understood through the way they interact. The idea of substance, where we have a picture of the world that we can observe with ease, then think how it is affected, how it evolves, how it changes, is wrong. Forget substance, forget the substratum, forget matter, and just describe interactions.”

He indicates that, at its deepest level, matter is not a “thing,” but a way of “vibrating, something very different from what we thought.”

Back in 1944, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, who did not believe in a personal God, said the same thing.

“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such,” Planck said. “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force, which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”

The sum of our parts

Which leads me to this philosophical place: What is a city without people? What are people without cells? Cells without molecules? Molecules without compounds of atoms? Atoms without — the force of vibration?

Everything we are is dependent upon the structure and organization of building blocks, all boiling down to vibration … interaction … integration. The structure of man and its choices is nothing more than the Anybody we pay the most attention to — and we’re not very aware of what holds us together.

Dietrich said if we boiled down what our bodies are made of it would be about 37 cents worth of elements. Cosmologists remind us that 96 percent of the matter in the universe is made up of something entirely unknown to us.

Our clashing viewpoints — the Anybody of man/society — ultimately don’t consist of much “matter” in the grander scheme of things — the Everybody of man/universe. Our limits of vision, thought and 37 cents worth of elements are trumped by a deeper power. As the Kentucky writer Wendell Berry put it, “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”


Mikki Morrissette is the author of “Attainable We” — a book and website in progress — about the science of what connects us.

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